The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

I think that the release of The Casual Vacancy was always going to be difficult. After its initial reception it seems that many people have been describing it in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. Every review I’ve read contains little magical puns and mentions how far from the wizarding world the town of Pagford is located. This seems an unfair and irrelevant way to approach a book review, but it appears that Rowling is haunted by Harry in much the same way that the townsfolk of Pagford are haunted by Barry.

No one doubted that The Casual Vacancy would sell well. Yet whether it is liked is still under debate. The New York Times has described the novel, which explores the lives of eight small town families around the time of a general election, as ‘banal’, ‘depressingly cliché’, and ‘dull’. It is not an action-led novel, but more of a snapshot of small town life and the ways in which seediness permeates the heart of the town despite the perception that it is the gritty periphery which threatens its picturesque perfection. Themes of imbalance, prejudice, morality, and fairness weave through the plot, which is littered with the poor moral decisions of each of the characters.

It takes awhile for the novel to gain momentum. Rowling sets a slow pace which, once the action does begin, spirals into darkness and disarray quite quickly. Once I got to this point – a little over half way – I was eager to see the story through to it’s conclusion. The ending is, as most will already know, bleak. Many reviewers found it disappointing; but not all stories have to be happy stories. Despite the morbid ending, I felt a glimmer of hope remained. Several characters are changed, potentially signaling that they may be able to save the deteriorating morality of the town.

Afterwards I was left questioning whether the narrative was over-orchestrated, whether the story had depth, and particularly, whether there was truth in it. Did the characters behave, to use Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall’s word, “authentically”? None of the characters are particularly like-able, but I do get a sense that I recognise realistic traits in them. People can be gossipy, and cruel. They are often irrational. I did get a sense that the characters’ motivations were based on beliefs that were very real to them, even if these may seem petty to readers.

There are several poignant vignettes, including accurate observations on teenage lust, the relationship between friendship and jealousy, and the discontent or uneasiness that can manifest in intimate relationships. But then there are also too-obvious impressions of the relationships which teenage boys have with their fathers, or teenage girls with their mothers, and of the differences in favoritism experienced by children who do and do not live up to parental expectation.

Given the expectation upon her as a writer, perhaps this was a necessary next-book in her repertoire. At this point let’s hope it acts as a palate cleanser to ready us for the better, richer, next course. Suffice it to say that The Casual Vacancy was a well-written, yet joyless read. I will probably not read it again, but it did make me think – if not about the intricacy of local British government or the ills of modern society, at least about how to tell a story – and that is a good thing for a book to do.

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